Central market in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar - a neighbourhood that sprang up around Punjabi refugees from West Pakistan - is a shopping institution. By noon, the lanes resemble an outdoor mall with mannequins overwhelmingly trussed up in salwar kameez. A lot about this crowded market is quintessentially Delhi but its biggest trade is no longer unique to the capital.
“Neither me nor my friends look at a salwar kameez and think that it’s a ‘north Indian’ style dress,” says Aditi Iyer, a 26-year-old software technician in Chennai. “We all started wearing it because of college. Everyone wore them.”
That is, every young woman in a college in Chennai. Salwar, kameez and churidar — I use the terms loosely to include billowing patialas, fitter pyjamas and shapely churidars that are paired with short, long, boxy or snug kurtas — make for brisk business across India. They sell just as much in Kolkata’s New Market, in Bengaluru’s Commercial Street or Chennai’s Sowcarpet.
What used to be a distinctly “Punjabi” outfit is now a familiar ensemble all over India. Patriarchy, rebellion, Bollywood, the pressures of dressing to work and the lure of comfort have all contributed to its ubiquity. But it’s story is yet to be told.
Unlike the sari, which is often treated as a national wonder, the salwar kameez has never been recognised for the cultural capsule that it is. It arrived from elsewhere, like tailoring itself. Salwar, churidar and kameez are believed to be Persian influences that spread and evolved over centuries of trade, conquest and Muslim rule. The dual garment, according to fashion historian Toolika Gupta, became common in 19th century Punjab when Ranjit Singh’s rule extended up to Kashmir. But it’s history is full of gaps — by the 1940s, it had become acceptable garb for young women in northern cities such as Delhi and Karachi. Divided bottoms were likely better for travelling, especially on public transport, or playing sports.
It took several decades to sweep across India. And what a sweep — the sari lost its place as the default Indian attire; the dupatta, once used to enfold the upper body and even cover the head, became dispensable; and the modest salwar kameez that clothed nearly every inch below the neck turned into a muse for chic, audacious fashion.
Bollywood or not?
Some would argue it all started with Asha Parekh’s pert look: narrow kurtas with tight churidars. Parekh wasn’t the first or the only Hindi film heroine to wear this but she seems to be the most memorable. So much so that my aunt, a college student in Coonoor in the ‘70s, emulated her. So she found a tailor who turned her “half-saris” (the south Indian trio of blouse, skirt and dupatta) into a Parekh-inspired wardrobe.
My aunt found the outfit liberating. She used it to boldly oppose her mother’s staunch ideas. For my mother, living in Hyderabad in the ‘70s, it was stifling. She had to wear “Indian clothes”, not jeans, if she wanted to go for “second shows” (the 9 pm slot for movies). For many other women, it was convenient to hop on the bus, to drive a scooter, to go to college or work in something more manageable than a sari.
The Indian street and the office in the 80s belonged to men. The sari was still popular, even among working women, but the salwar kameez had started to creep in. Tight or loose, long or short, full sleeved or sleeveless — these choices allowed it to be modern or modest, traditional or smart, formal or casual. Especially at a time when Indian women had no formal work wear.
“What it allows is a very safe middle ground,” says Santosh Desai, who writes about contemporary society. A form fitting kurta is “more revealing than a pair of jeans,” says Desai, but it “escapes comment.” The same way the sari, midriff exposed, is more “traditional” than a tight churidar.
“The salwar kameez becomes a quasi-formal attire,” says Desai. “Bollywood is a great diffuser of fashion in general but I am not absolutely sure that is what has been at work here.”
Work, work, work
He’s right. The salwar and churidar began to appear in cities such as Hyderabad by the 80s but they hadn’t outnumbered the sari or found their way into small towns. That happened through the 90s when Madhuri Dixit and Kajol were storming the screen in what can only be described as overgrown frocks. Instead it was the demands of comfort, fashion and the march of time that dictated the salwar’s eventual popularity.
Nilanjana Gupta was a young professor in Kolkata in 1991 when she started to wear the salwar-kameez to work : “it was convenient and comfortable.” She continued despite disapproving glances and, soon, more colleagues did the same. As life got faster, commutes grew and homes shrank, the sari became a burden for urban, working women. Where would they dry it and who would iron it? At the same time, retail brands such as Fabindia were selling ready-made salwar kameez and churidars — a welcome alternative to tailoring matching blouses and petticoats for each sari. And Bollywood, once again, started to mimic as well as inspire reality — think Rani Mukherjee’s brash patialas in Bunty aur Babli, Kareena Kapoor’s effortless, white salwars in Jab We Met and Deepika Padukone’s hip churidars in Love Aaj Kal.
The more people wore these clothes, the more ordinary they became. Schools started prescribing it as a uniform for girls over 15 years. Colleges insisted on “traditional” dress codes. Slowly, young women in towns as far south as Vellore and Vijayawada took to the outfit. “Sleeveless is not selling and in smaller towns, necklines become a big issue,” says Fabindia director Charu Sharma who was part of the team that introduced kurtas to the brand’s retail stock in 1982-83. Now, Sharma says, the salwar kameez and churidar make up the brand’s highest selling “look” in 88 cities.
The new normal
“That does make me feel sad,” says fashion designer Anita Dongre, who has seen the lehenga-choli in small-town Gujarat give way to the salwar kameez. But, she admits, the latter’s comfort is unarguable for a “younger generation on the move.” It was that penchant for ease that spurred her brand Global Desi’s line of colourful, chic Indian wear, which includes salwars, churidars and kurtas of every cut.
“It’s really more like what the shirt and pant is to the west,” says Dongre. “It can go from casual to formal, depends on how you style it.”
In the imagination of Indian fashion labels, the salwar kameez has morphed from demure to anything but that — it’s daring when the tops are slit high on either side or striking when they flare just right. It’s sexy if you opt for plunging necklines and bare backs, and it’s avant-garde as a comfy, amorphous swirl of fabric. Loose salwars and tight churidars are classic, cigarette pants are refreshingly chic and bottoms that vaguely resemble a salwar are adventurous.
The salwar kameez — in all its flexible, stylish glory — is India’s national dress.
“It’s very pan-Indian,” says 22-year-old Smitha TK, a TV journalist who grew up in Vellore and started wearing salwar kameez in high school.
She finds it easier to report in rural south India in a salwar kameez because “people are more approachable if you are dressed in a way that is familiar to them.”
What about a sari? “It’s a lot of effort,” she says, laughing. “Definitely not for work or normal life.”
With inputs from Aditya Iyer and Anindita Acharya